As the dust settles on the 2021 season, a new tennis era beckons.
Yes, I know we’ve said that many times before.
“The Big Three are done, it’s time for them to step aside for the next generation.”
Remember that US Open in 2014? Cilic destroyed Federer on his way to the title, while Nishikori gave Djokovic a lesson to reach his first Grand Slam Final. All while Nadal was absent with a wrist injury.
The spell had finally been broken, we thought. New champions would emerge as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic faded into irrelevance.
But time and time again, these legends have refused to fold, setting new records and re-defining what was even possible.
Thus, my proclamation that a new era has arrived – and I really mean it this time – seems a little premature.
It seems incredibly premature when you consider that Novak Djokovic just came agonisingly close to a calendar-year Grand Slam. He was inches from sporting immortality.
But for my money, a new star emerged in New York and it wasn’t even the man who defeated Djokovic in the US Open final.
His name is Carlos Alcaraz.
To be clear, I mean no disrespect to Daniil Medvedev. He’s proven himself to be a great champion and I have no doubt that he has more Grand Slam titles ahead of him. Medvedev is now the benchmark for the next generation.
It won’t be long before he snatches Djokovic’s crown as world number one.
US Open Champion and world no. 2, Daniil Medvedev. Photo: Matthew Stockman via Getty Images
For so long, we thought Zverev or Tsitsipas would be the first players to break the Big Three’s dominance. They look the part and they have all of the style and tools.
But Medvedev, with his iron will and awkward groundstrokes, has delivered substance over style.
He will go down as a great champion, but there’s a rapidly rising Spaniard who appears to have a higher ceiling.
Why? Well, the kid has just about everything.
Standing at 6’1″, Alcaraz is 3-4 inches shorter than Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev. But what he lacks in height, he makes up for with pure firepower.
The 18 year old already strikes the ball cleaner and more destructively than most of the tour. He rips it with such spin and fury that renowned tennis coach, Patrick Mouratoglu said “I can’t remember who is the last player that I have seen hitting the ball so hard.”
His forehand and backhand are equally lethal, leaving his opponents almost permanently on the back foot, with little chance of relief.
Defensively, Alcaraz is just as sound, using his speed and slices to neutralise his opponents’ attacks.
While Medvedev is easily one of tennis’ most renowned brick walls, I doubt he’d beat Alcaraz in a 20 yard dash.
Of course, that’s not everything. There’s plenty to be said for anticipation and a player’s ability to construct a point. But seriously, look at this hustle below. Not to mention his poise and reaction time.
Note how quickly Alcaraz turned defence into attack in this clip. It’s a skill very few players possess.
Alcaraz’s athleticism is unmatched, with the Spaniard sliding around the court and producing acrobatic forms of defence that would make a gymnast – or even Novak Djokovic – proud.
Still only a teenager, Alcaraz has the physical build of a prime Rafael Nadal. A comparison that will no doubt, be repeated ad nauseam.
When he’s not bludgeoning the ball for clean winners, he’s utilising abrupt changes of pace to change the course of a point.
The Spaniard has enjoyed a stunning breakthrough season, rising from 141 in the world, all the way up to 32.
He’s made plenty of history along the way.
In April, he became the youngest match winner in the history of the Madrid Open, with a win over Adrian Mannarino.
At the French Open, he claimed a major scalp in 28th seed, Nikoloz Basilashvilli, before he was eliminated in the 3rd round.
He rebounded with his first ATP title at the Croatia Open, adding further notches to his belt such as Filip Krajinovic and Richard Gasquet. This victory made him the youngest tour-level champion since 2008.
But it’s at the US Open where Alcaraz really showed his mettle.
He destroyed 26th seed Cameron Norrie in the 1st round, before overcoming the talented Arthur Rinderknech in four sets.
However, his 3rd round clash with Stefanos Tsitsipas gave us a true window into his potential.
We’d seen him beat good players, even hit them off the court. But a Top 3 player at a Grand Slam? In 24,000 seater stadium? This was a different level.
Alcaraz overpowered Tsitsipas early, but the most impressive aspect of the match was that when Stefanos found a new gear, so did the 18 year old.
It was an up and down performance that featured some dips in energy and consistency, but never a drop of the shoulders. He showed the maturity and composure of a veteran.
He was brave and relentless, treating the crowd to some audacious shotmaking.
Over 5 sets, every time Tsitsipas raised the bar, Alcaraz met the challenge, eventually triumphing in a fifth set tiebreak.
Tsitsipas seemed stunned in the aftermath. “[His] ball speed was incredible,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard. [It] took time to adjust.”
He went on to become the US Open’s youngest quarter finalist ever, and the youngest player to defeat a Top-3 seed.
When you look at the highlights above, you have to ask yourself. If Alcaraz is this good already, how good will he be in two years?
As he continues to grow into his frame, his strength, fitness and mental fortitude, will only deepen. So too, will his tennis IQ and capacity to perform under pressure.
Many experts have analysed his game and found few weaknesses. He even has brilliant touch at the net.
Andy Murray has called Alcaraz a future world number one, marvelling at his physicality.
“He hits the ball really hard from the back of the court, and I’d probably say like physically, I don’t really like comparing like myself to other young players, but if I think back to when I was 18 in comparison to him, from a physical perspective he is unbelievably strong,” Murray told Chris Oddo.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he did really well in a Slam and was able to win long matches, like long five-set matches, already. A lot of younger players when they are 18, 19, are not physically ready for that. I’d say that’s probably the thing that sort of stands out, physically he seems, very, very strong.”
“He is obviously an excellent mover around the court as well, so that’s a big positive.”
Former Doubles Champion and Tennis analyst, Todd Woodbridge, provided further insights into the regard with which the tour holds the Spaniard.
During Channel Nine’s coverage of the US Open, he said “the word around the locker room and the playing group is that this kid is the closest thing to Rafa since Nadal came along.”
“You get one of these players every 15 years. We had Michael Chang in my era, or Lleyton Hewitt a bit later,” Woodbridge said. “This era has been cruel, because the younger players haven’t been able to break through against the Big Three.
“But this young guy has the chance to be the next dominant player, that’s what the whisper is around the tennis community.”
Carlos Alcaraz celebrates his victory at the Next Gen Finals. Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images
Under the guidance of Juan Carlos Ferrero, a strong coach and former champion himself, the sky appears to be the limit.
Alcaraz finished the year in style by clinching the Next Gen ATP Finals title, and if I’m any judge, he’ll need to invest in a bigger trophy cabinet soon.